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COLUMN: How the role of a grandparent has changed over the years

Columnist Cynthia Breadner discusses the evolving role a grandparent plays in the family wheel
Cynthia Breadner for BradfordToday

A grandmother is a little bit parent, a little bit teacher, and a little bit best friend and most of all a safe place to land.

“Run with me Gramma!”  In the fall we went for a hike together as a family.  My wee grandson was with me and he is three years old! He kept wanting to run!  “Run with me Gramma!” and of we would go, running and running.  

The sheer joy of his laughter was music to my ears.  He would squeal and call out as I would run ahead.  He would say, “Wait for me Gramma!” and I would slow up so he could blast past me like the wind.  When he was not looking, I would pull ahead and pop behind a tree, and when he went by, I would jump out at him and he would be deliciously startled just for one moment and then laugh and say, “do it again Gramma”.  My daughter and her husband were walking along with the baby strapped close to the chest.  I would breathlessly say, “Hey why don’t one of you run?”  But we all knew my grandson only wanted Gramma to run and I took it all in!  With every beat of my racing heart, every breath that I took and with each request I witnessed pure unadulterated joy.  It was a glorious day one I will cherish, and memories I hope my grandson may take into his adult life.  Remembering that Gramma could run with him and was maybe a good substitute for a dog!

Most recently, a friend of mine reported sadly that her grandmother had died.  It was with pain, sorrow and sadness she shared the news devastated by her loss and my heart goes out to her and her family.  While her grandmother lived to be well into her 80’s, she lived with this family in the family home and they were not ready to say goodbye.  As I work in LTC and watch the many grammas and grandpas sit idly watching the paint peel I wonder where have we lost our desire to personally care for the ageing?  I relive my own guilt for putting my needs before my own ageing mother’s and give to others as a way of paying it forward.  I also thought about my own memories of my grandparents and wondered why I do not have warm, fuzzy memories of my own?  It was time to check in with my older sister.

I fired off an email with this inquiry to my sister.  She is the eldest of our family and is the first grandchild on the maternal side.  Our mother was the third of nine children and the oldest was born in 1917.  Our mother was born in 1919.  My sister had the dates of the deaths of our grandparents and they all died between 1970 and 1973, except for my dad’s dad, who died young in 1941.  The other three died when I was 12-14 years old.  No wonder my memories were sparse.  It was also a different era.  Grandparents were not the icons of this era.  Nor were they particularly close to the boomer generation’s children because honestly, I don’t think they were close to their own!

My maternal grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher!  Passionate about the gospel and true to his faith he lived each day according to the scriptures.  One memory I do have is the guilt and fear my mother felt over her love for a good game of “euchre”  that was played regularly in our home.  I remember being at the table with my chin just over the top, watching the cards fly around the circle.  I remember the squeals of delight, much like my grandson’s joy, when the majority of tricks would be won, meaning my mother and her partner had taken the round.  I remember laying on the floor, upstairs in the old farmhouse, looking down the stovepipe hole in the floor so I could see my mother moving at the table.  I remember, even at this young age (pre-10) imagining they had somehow recorded themselves laughing and had gone out!  So, I lay there watching the evidence they were still down there.  In the 1970s where would I get the thought of the recording themselves and going out?  This has always puzzled me. 

One time my mother’s parents were coming for a visit.  Mom was certain she had hidden every card and tucked every bingo chip only to be horrified when my grandmother was in the “parlour” and, as mom was talking, Gramma found a playing card on the end table.  My mother’s heart stopped, of this I am certain.  She held her breath, the world stood still, and a pall came over the room.  A pall as dark as the pall that was in this very room as the beautiful body of my 14-month old sister born in 1946 lay, during her wake so long ago.  My mother feared the fallout of being found out as a card player and lived in this dark secret with fear as serious as the death of a child.  In this era to go against the teachings of the church was a serious matter.  As Gramma turned over the card it was discovered it was a card from a child’s deck, mine, from the game of “Old Maid”.  It was an acceptable game in Gramma’s eyes, however inappropriate, as the unmatchable card becomes the "old maid," and whoever holds it at the end of the game is the loser. It is during these memories I do not need to wonder why I am missing “warm” or “fuzzy” memories of my grandparents. 

In conversation, via email, with my older sister (remember I am 61 and she was first born, gone from home when I was born, she’s one of the “cool” Nana’s) we talked about how our maternal grandmother was not known for her warmth or her fuzziness.  Grampa was funny, played a mean game of crokinole even with his marred arthritic hands and was never in deep conversation with his young’uns because we shied away.  We feared he would ask us to recite scripture or name the books of the New Testament.  I remember in the church he would challenge us to call out chapter and verse.  He knew the bible so well that he could recite it.  If he could with no mistakes, then we had to learn it for the next week.  

Our father’s mother died first and had lived alone, or with a female companion, never remarrying after her husband’s death in 1941.  Our understanding or steeping of our paternal grandmother was from our mother’s perspective.  My sister remembers this better than I because I was so young.  One might say that story was the typical “monster-in-law” story.  I mean Gramma was a good Presbyterian while my mother was raised in a tradition where women were to be silent in the church.  So, she was silent at church, but it meant she had a lot to say at home that was often not flattering to others. 

As we reminisced about grandparents, my sister and I, we reflected on how different it is today.  She commented how in her circles some of her friends are run ragged and too involved, meaning it is not good for their health and the children are not being responsible.  That said, today’s grandparent is fit, busy and active.  Running and working out, travelling (before COVID) and highly educated.  Most of all grandparents have become a very important cog in the wheel of the family much like it was before the middle of the 20th century when LTC and retirement “communities” were developed.  This action of communing with the elderly is a relatively new concept founded as late as the 1970s.  

Today’s grandparents are taxis, babysitters, school monitors and now online police for homework.  They care for the grandkids to allow for shift work and “time out” for parents.  They prevent the proverbial latchkey kid and make sure children are safe and never alone.  They are often counsellors and referees and they need to understand technology, nonbinary sexual orientation and be prepared that their grandchild may be a “they” or “them”.  They also need to know how to bake peanut butter cookies without using peanut butter! 

Today’s grandparent is essential to the family unit and with this our future looks so much brighter!  I am hoping by the time I hit 100 there will be a spare room for me in my grandson’s home and round the clock care for his old granny.  I trust by the time I need the same care that he needs right now, he will be ready to care for me and as I take my walker down the hall heading for the loo, I will get there before it is too late and as I go he will call out “run with me Gramma” encouraging me to hurry along to keep from peeing my pants. 

God Bless all grandparents during these pandemic times.  May each and all love the generations knowing the roots of family come with human connection and the love that binds us all together.  As you “bubble” maybe include Gramma in your bubble.  She would rather die from disease holding your hand than live a day longer because you stayed away.  

Cynthia Breadner is a grief specialist and bereavement counsellor, a soul care worker and offers specialized care in Applied Metapsychology with special attention to trauma resolution.  She volunteers at hospice, works as a LTC chaplain and is a death doula, assisting with end-of-life care for clients and family.  She is the mother part of the #DanCynAdventures duo and practices fitness, health and wellness in the South Simcoe and North York region. [email protected]

Cynthia Breadner

About the Author: Cynthia Breadner

Writer Cynthia Breadner is a grief specialist and bereavement counsellor, a soul care worker providing one-on-one support at
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